You know the feeling of having your omega-3 capsule stick to the walls of your esophagus and lodge there until you drink more water or eat a piece of breath to shove it down? An object’s progress from mouth to stomach is an intricate dance of body position and muscle function. Now that you have been able to ruminate about chewing (See Part One: Chewing if you missed it), it’s time to move on to swallowing and how our habitual head position changes the reflex.
Remember, the digestive tract is a tube of smooth muscle that travels from the mouth to anus. Movement through most of the canal is achieved through peristalsis, or wave-like contractions of the tube walls. Skeletal muscles assist in areas of the tract where food needs to be propelled, like swallowing in the throat.
The skeletal muscles of swallowing are the geniohyoid, mylohyoid, and stylohyoid, collectively known as the suprahyoids. They form a sling of muscles along the underside of the jaw. They span from the anterior, inner edge of the mandible to the hyoid bone. The hyoid bone is a horseshoe shaped bone that floats between the root of the tongue and cartilage of the voice box. Their roles are to depress the mandible and to elevate the hyoid and tongue for swallowing.
Normal swallowing is a complex voluntary and reflexive process involving the tongue and sequential contraction of these muscles. Swallowing happens in four stages. As we chew our food, our tongue moves it around our mouth so it can be crushed and mixed with saliva. This forms a bolus, or round bundle of food ready for swallowing. In the first phase of swallowing, the tongue pushes the food mash toward the back of our throat. This is followed by the propulsion of the food into the upper pharynx through further contraction of the tongue. In the third stage, the bolus is transported through the pharynx and esophageal sphincter by synchronized muscular contraction of the suprahyoid muscles. Their action pulls the hyoid bone and voice box up and forward to open the entrance to the esophagus.
Our optimal swallowing mechanics are increasingly thrown off balance by habitual head thrusting known as forward head posture. Forward head posture has become more prominent due to the rise of smartphones and prevalence of computer usage. It is characterized by increased flexion of the lower cervical and upper thoracic regions, increased extension of the occiput on the first cervical vertebra, and increased extension of the upper cervical vertebrae. As a result, the head protrudes anterior to the trunk. Always jutting the head forward results in adaptive changes to muscles to compensate for the weight of the head against gravity. The trapezius, splenius capitis, splenius cervicis, and suboccipital muscles lengthen.
Additionally, forward head position displaces the normal alignment of the hyoid and mandible bones, where the suprahyoid bones attach. The constant thrusting of the head lengthens the suprahyoid muscles. Since proper functioning of the suprahyoid muscles is crucial in order to open the gateway to the esophagus, forward head posture can negatively influence swallowing mechanics and leave you with the feeling of food stuck in your throat.
The good news is this can be addressed with a few simple and effective Yoga Tune Up® exercises. Take computer and smartphone breaks through your day to ungunk your neck. Restore elasticity in the neck muscles with the Suboccipital Traction and Still Point Inducer ball rolling sequences. Strengthen the muscles to hold your head in alignment with your spine with Block Head.
Reverse forward head position while you’re eating too. With your head up, bring your utensils or hand toward your mouth instead of pushing your head forward to meet your food. Set your fork down between bites. Realign your head while chewing and then swallow to optimize suprahyoid muscle functions. That way you will ensure a smooth start to your digestion.
Stay tuned for the next installment of how muscle imbalances affect digestion. We will explore the abdomen and how habitual body positioning in the torso can slow the flow.
I am very aware of the effects of head forward posture in terms in pain, but how it affects the jaw and further… chewing swallowing and digestion is fascinating. This rollout is one of my faves….thanks for the reminder!
I am obviously fascinated with this series you wrote 🙂 It’s so interesting to think about the muscles that are working to help us do something like swallow. They are “in the background” but we are using them all the time. Also very interesting to consider how head placement affects swallowing mechanics. This makes so much sense but I had not thought of this particular affect of forward head posture. I wonder if digestion lower down below the throat is also affected by the forward head posture and the difficulties we might have from the first swallow of our food? So many cool muscles to learn about in our brilliant body! Thank you for writing about the chewing and swallowing muscles.
Thanks for the info it had gotten really bad when I eat my food would not go all the way down it could be up to 4or 5 hours later I’d be laying in bed and turn my neck a certain way and the food comes back up in my mouth, having a lots of constipation, gas burning in my chest and tingling going down the side of my arm I can turn my shoulder and back muscles a certain way and air will shoot down through my stomach other time my shoulders and up the left side of my neck gets very stiff but after I have a bowel movement it feel better
Hum I will try and observe myself when I eat. To make sure I bring my fork to my mouth and not the reverse. The aligment of the head in aged people is even a thing that can bring more risk of suffocation. It’s crazy to see how our posture affect everything we do!!
I never would have thought that skull-vertebre alignment would be so important for proper swallowing! This is very motivating to pay attention to my posture not only when I work and move, but when I eat as well!
I am a person with a curve-less cervical spine due to a lifetime of beinging my head to my food!!! WOW!! Lightbulb!! Maybe my spine condition is caused by not just use of smart phones, computers but also caused by a lifetime of meals in poopy postures. I will definitely remember to bring my food to my mouth and also put my fork down in between my bites to realign. Big big thank you!!
Another great reason why we shouldn’t work while eating (or text or read, etc.) and should eat with company. This is a great series – thank you!
So simple and so effective. I can not wait to hear my students after doing this exercise.
After reading your article I will be paying more attention to my posture while eating, particularly the idea of keeping my head stacked over my shoulders while I eat.
I often get really sore right at the base of the occipital, sometimes my whole neck freezes up. I had an idea that it might be cause by posture during the day, but this whole chewing connection is fascinating! On to part 3..
“Forward head position displaces the normal alignment of the hyoid and mandible bones, where the suprahyoid bones attach. Forward head posture can negatively affect swallowing mechanic and left you with the food stake at your throat”. love this information. Time to reinforce table manner of spoon to mouth and no phone during eating to get the best digestive preparation especially eating alone.
Another mind blower! Swallowing is a movement. Maybe not a very noticeable one but still a movement that is affected by the postures and movements we require to perform in our daily lives.
Great article. As both a Yoga teacher and a Registered Dietitian I encourage all my students and clients the importance of muscle strength (neck, abdominal, etc.) as well as the positioning of the head. Many of the clients I assess for swallowing difficulties are having difficulties because of their head position, postural issues, decreased muscle tone in and around the neck, shoulders and “core”.
This is a topic I think should be taught to everyone to reduce the risk for modified textured foods, fluids and adaptive aids as they get older.
Oh la la ! I had never think of the head posture, and it’s importance, when I eat ! I will change this habit right now and eat like a queen : crown over my body and food going toward mouth ! Thank you!
It’s surprising how many things are affected by the habitual forward head posture that is so common these days. I am definitely guilty of leaning my head over my phone and computer and can feel the fatigue in my neck. I had no idea that it was stretching my swallowing muscles too!
I will be trying the Block Head routine to strengthen those muscles and be more mindful of he foreword head posture.
You sure are waking up my mind and making me think about the relationship of posture and digestion. I have always mentioned to my students that better postures improves, breathe, circulation and digestion, but I never really went much farther than that. This is so interesting!
I’ll never eat the same again! So much to think about. I already do Suboccipital Traction and Still Point Inducer ball rolling sequences, I’ll be adding blockhead. Thanks again for a great series!
The odds are no one thinks about posture when they are eating. Maybe not slouching at the dinner table (never a good thing to do as we learned from dear old Mom years ago). This article and the entire series truly brings to light the interconnected reality of this human body in which we live as well as our behavior upon it.
What a fabulous pair of descriptive articles. I will never eat in the same way again. It’s something we take for granted, but it a very complex process.
Thanks for this article. I had never considered that the constant forward head posture would throw off swallowing. It makes complete sense after reading this article.
I don’t know the last time I brought a fork to my mouth instead of my mouth to a fork. Time to change that habit!
Woah woah woah. “Our optimal swallowing mechanics are increasingly thrown off balance by habitual head thrusting known as forward head posture,” I just never knew. My whole family knows that food sometimes just gets stuck in my chest. If I excuse myself from the dinner table this why. I haven’t always been able to predict when this will happen and it seems to occur in phases, perhaps this is why. I’ve trained myself to chew well to help prevent this stuck feeling, I never even thought to think about my head.
This was fascinating to think that not only is the spine and back/muscles compromised by hanging the head forward to look down, but the muscles in the jaw and face are being subtly overstretched by gravity or are left in a constant state of contraction.
I can’t think of the last time I brought the fork to my mouth instead of moving my head to my food – time to change some habits!
Bananas! It is crazy to think how much electronic devices have changed the way we not only live and interact, but they are also literally reshaping our bodies, in not the best of ways (i.e. habitual head thrusting to look at a screen.) I find it fascinating that you can help improve someones digestive through neck exercises and restore elasticity through ball rolling sequences (via yoga tune up balls).
Thanks, Jessie. This is a great marriage of anatomical understanding of the head, neck, mouth, jaw — and the consequence of lifestyles that too many of us are unconsciously caught up in (and in some cases, resulting health complications). I appreciate the suggestion of mindful eating practice as a way to pay better attention to the intricate mechanisms of swallowing and how intertwined they are with our alignment. As a teacher of mindfulness in elementary school, I think incorporating additional cues of proper alignment when practicing mindful eating would be a wise and helpful way of allowing children (or anyone) to notice the difference (or sameness!) in that experience from their “normal” habit-patterns. Perhaps it could instill healthier habits over a lifetime.
I had no idea posture had such a major effect on digestion & particularly swallowing. The head forward position you speak of has totally taken over our society, but to be honest I just thought it would impact neck tension & headaches, not thinking for a second that it would also interfere with the functionality of our bodies & organs as a whole. Thanks for shining some light on this topic.
Thank you, appreciate tips about head positions while eating, something I never really thought about before. Will be bringing awareness to this when having my meals.
Thank you for breaking down the process of swallowing. I will be more mindful now of my posture when I eat.
This article really caught my attention. As a nurse practitioner in an ICU, I am aware that many of my patients suffer from dysphagia. Most of the time, this is a result of prolonged intubation or an inability to participate in ADLs. Though this is an extreme example, the cause-and-effect of prolonged immobility and progressive weakness to dysphagia is so much more apparent and expected in the population of patients I care for. Conversely, I would not necessarily expect that merely overemphasizing certain muscles, as would happen with the forward head position, could affect the swallowing mechanism. But that totally makes sense. There are so many smartphone users in the world, myself included! All of us with terrible posture! The message here is a nice wake-up call.
I also really liked the suggestion of mindful eating. Mindfulness is a really hard habit to start, but incredibly rewarding!
I appreciate the clear layout of the mechanics of swallowing; very helpful to have had this laid out before linking the chronic conditions product by forward head posture. As with your other article, the link between broad trends in habitual movement patterns and common and chronic issues is very compelling! Great to have all of this rooted in a very specific, visceral feeling.
I hadn’t considered the implications of forward head posture on swallowing. An other important reason to train posture and practice YTU poses that strengthen muscles that reinforce head alignment. I will also focus on eating mindfully while correcting posture. Thanks for sharing!
I’ve never thought about the relationship between the jaw position and swallowing! I notice many people with a forward head position, it may also affect vision as well since the peripheral view is different. I am going to thy the reverse tips you provided while eating my next meal.
I had never thought of this! as a super fast eater, its definitely something to keep in mind next time i sit down at the dinner table 😉
Hi Jessie! Yes I agree with Heather…It’s not something I’ve considered at all..I love to give my clients and classes great knowledge in the why and how of what I’m teaching them. I will be passing this topic on too. I would love to come to your training’s and classes one day..Nutrition is so very important to a person’s over all wellness. I really like how you’ve integrated the two together.
Great article, Jessie 🙂 Appreciate the tips about being conscious of head position while eating! That wasn’t something I had considered before. Always good to get that reminder to SLOW DOWN and eat mindfully.